“Repentance Must Be Individual,” by William T. Riviere

In an apparently nice, orthodox, historic way, we American church people on these recent wartime Sundays have been saying Amen to official wartime professions of penitence for our sins. We even did this on weekdays, especially at ecclesiastical conferences and convocations.

But a reasonably careful reader and listener finds some of this mental and spiritual food rather tasteless. The seasoning is incomplete. Perhaps the salt is lacking. It took human collapses and nervousness to teach some war work plants what the army and the oil industry had already learned, the need for salt.

One is inclined to believe, from large-eared contacts with many men, that quite a number of Americans, in and out of the church, rarely trouble themselves to repent, though there may be remorse for individual acts which produce human suffering. Important doctrinal considerations are omitted here. But church or no church, preaching or no preaching, general confession or shorter catechism, many a man plans quite confidently to face the future on a basis of the general average of his sincerity, his effort, his honor and honesty, and his customary decency. Without question he expects to receive a passing grade; his criterion is his own estimate of himself. He takes no account of the softening effect of gentle memory. He ignores the fact that a healthy mind protects itself by encysting shameful recollections, and covers the pain of defeat by scabs and scar tissue which make it easy to forget. His record may be like his bank account when he has failed to stub some checks. The possibility of red ink on his statement is unimaginable. Foreseeing no surprise when judged by another, he does not really participate in any communal repentance at church.

Repentance must be an individual act. “We have done those things which we ought not to have done” means “I have done” and “I ought not” and “I”. The “we” is an actual sum of I’s. It is not, “I, a total abstainer, confess that some of us have been drunken”; nor, “I, an honest man, confess that some of us engage in crooked deals, some of us, but not I.” It is not even, “I, personally honest, confess that under our economic system some of us have unfair gains at the expense of the less fortunate; and I confess that the group of which I am a part sometimes has unworthy representatives who demand too much in hope of getting our fair share.” The sincere and sensitive soul with a delicate feeling for truth has concrete and specific sins of its own in mind when confessing sin in private or public prayer. He confesses his individual share in collective guilt.

Have you ever heard a revivalist in free prayer endeavoring publicly to phrase the confessions of some of his targets? He may utter the specific admission for some trifling husband or some nagging wife, for a swindler or for a thief. With all his honesty he is not himself confessing any guilt for those sins.

Isaiah, when called to high service, confessed his own unworthiness. Then he paralleled that with, “I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” That was less a confession for his people than a disclaimer of the human error which John the Baptist was to denounce, “We have Abraham to our father.” Isaiah’s own lips were touched with a glowing stone (New Translation, Jewish Pub. Soc.) and his iniquity was taken away.

When these paragraphs were first written at the Presidio of San Francisco in the fall of 1942, a good deal of national repentance was being published in resolutions and sermons that affect me like this vicarious confession of the revivalist. Nearly three years later on the night when Japan surrendered there are perceptible signs of a lush crop of the same not very nourishing vegetation. Prohibitionists confess our intemperance. Social-minded preachers confess our nation’s social and economic sins. Civilians confess the sins which they attribute to the armed forces. Kindly souls prate about our sins of violence and intolerance, to all of which the writer usually says Amen. But something is missing.

Of course the first person singular need not always announce his own sins. Sometime he ought to, perhaps; and speakers of a certain type do so ad nauseam, even boastfully. The writer of these lines may or may not be personally humble about failures and shortcomings of his own. Leave him to his own judge. Let me be merely the voice of a lonesome coyote crying from a wilderness of rocky publications and of too many dry and sandy sermons (some of mine are pretty arid). But this yapping on a hill may venture to call some beloved brethren to repentance.

Among us are religious leaders and religious banner-bearers who have consistently and persistently inflicted their incomplete thinking on congregation or reader or, without proper qualification, on their students in classroom or lecture hall. Ephraim, it will be recalled, was a cake not turned. Did you ever cook battercakes? Cook one side; then turn or flip them over. A man’s thoughts ought to be progressive, his mind ought to grow, his views will change, and his words must be from his heart. Consistency is a less worthy virtue than sincerity. But if one’s half-baked ideas have done harm, he should repent his spreading them as well as seek to repair the damage by publishing his more up-to-date baking. There may be a time-lag between his change and the attainment of the same change by his followers, especially those who no longer can hear him regularly. His shout of correction should include, “I was wrong.” Does it ever?

Each individual must keep his own conscience and do his own repenting. There are some very respectable theological books which argue that one could repent for others, which others may appropriate that by faith and thereby benefit; but the theological group in question does not justify any vague pastoral repentance or group repentance for hoi polloi. In homely terms, every tub must stand on its own bottom.

Perhaps our motives call for self-examination. There may be a mixture of selfishness in our ardent desire to preach a good sermon or to introduce a distinguished visitor becomingly or to unify denominations or to accomplish needed reforms or to organize a new committee. This possibility of egotistic stain in our best efforts may be suggested by one of us to others of us, but each offender must detect himself and do the human part of setting himself straight.

A terrible second World War occurred. The pious premillenialist of the extreme type which confuses faith in God with faith that God has shown him a chart of the future and enlightened him as to its meaning, who opposed the League of Nations after the other World War because he foresaw it building a throne for Anti-Christ, has some mea culpas to cry and some breast-beating due. The pious religious optimist, who confused faith in God with faith in human nature, and whose unrealistic opposition to international force contributed to the capture of Guam and to our defeat in Bataan, is likewise invited to the mourners’ bench.

With the provincialism which may be an attendant vice of our splendid Anglo-Saxon heritage, an earnest man may see himself and the central part of the circle about him as larger and more important than the peripheral areas. In university circles we speak of changes in campus opinion or even of merely faculty opinion as if the same changes were occurring concomitantly on the farm, in the factory, and at the bar (including both brass-rail and courtroom).

A particular danger for us who struggle to keep a growing edge on our ethical perceptions and activities is that we may attain and surpass racial tolerance, growing into the much needed and Christianly racial brotherhood, while remaining intolerant of what we are pleased to label “obscurantism,” “radicalism,” “liberalism,” “traditionalism,” “narrowness,” “quietism,” or whatever the view is that we do not only decline to accept but un-Christianly also scorn.

The writer caught himself in a despicable sin of this sort a few weeks ago. Three religious pacifists had been erroneously or carelessly transferred from a medical training center to his outfit. An honest effort was made to use them, according to their desires and to the army policy that keeps weapons out of their hands. Formerly they had been truck drivers on assignments where drivers do not carry arms. After two months here they were transferred to another outfit, slated to become clerks or cooks. Apparently this did not please them. According to a reliable officer who handled their new assignments, every one of the three told some lie about how much experience he had in my camp as canteen clerk or company clerk. Now I had watched them rather closely and had interviewed each, showing every official consideration for their pacifist opinions, though on their particular premises their position seems intellectually indefensible. But after conduct toward them which I think had been kept above reproach while they were in my command, I must confess with shame that at this news of their selfish prevarication, conscientious religious pacifists telling falsehoods, my immediate reactions were amusement and a sinful gratification not far from “I told you so.”

I confess that sin and shall try not to repeat it. I have done worse, far worse. Perhaps there is room beside me at the penitents’ rail for a few readers. Not that I or anyone else who reads these words must be told about your sins. Discuss them in your private prayers. Then there may be some correction which you ought to announce to your congregation. But there is no such thing as joint repentance, nor as joint confession unless each confessor has been guilty of the same offense.

The Greeks had a way of beginning their creeds with the word Pisteuomen, “we believe.” Our Latin tradition is better: Credo, “I believe.” Repentance, like faith, must be individual.

William T. Riviere was a US Army chaplain and the author of A Pastor Looks at Kierkegaard: The Man and His Philosophy.